Subconsciously pandering once again to the boss’ surname, I found myself selecting another ‘Mitchell’ record to follow on from round 24’s ‘Mitchell record of the Anais variety’. Funnily enough the two records are pretty happy bedfellows as they both work as song cycles that are played out in the rural hinterland (in Anais’ case ‘Wilderland’) of the USA. And both give the impression of being laboured over, refined and revised coming as close as can be to realising the vision of the artist who made them. Lyrically rich and musically sumptuous, these two records stand out amongst those I have brought to Record Club of being works of great artistic accomplishment and skill and what they lack in spontaneity and raw edge they gain in depth – they are records that reward repeated listens and close attention. Rob must be a proud Mitchell indeed; surely it’s time the male members (unfortunate terminology admittedly) of the clan stepped up to the plate!
Of all the Joni albums I own (Blue through to Hejira), this one has always been the one I have been predisposed to, the one I regularly pull off the shelf, the one I am intrigued by. It’s not an easy listen; the songs are long and wordy and lack conventional melody; Joni’s voice throughout is exquisite but conversational in style and so the hooks that exist (and they do exist) are to be found elsewhere. Perhaps in the words she sings – current faves: ‘He sees cars as sets of waves’, ‘While the boarders were snoring under crisp white sheets of curfew’, ‘As snow gathers like bolts of lace waltzing on a ballroom girl’, ‘I dreamed of 747s over geometric farms’. To my untrained ears, these sound like the closest thing in my record collection to being poems set to music.
If the words don’t do it for you, perhaps the bass will as it is just about the only instrument on the entire album providing variety within the songs. And the playing is wonderful throughout, whether by Jaco Pastorius or Max Bennett, the bass draws you in and keeps you guessing right from the word go – in fact I reckon I could happily listen to the bass on album opener Coyote with no accompaniment on an infinite loop.
Having recently had a bit of a breakthrough with Hejira’s forebear, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, it has become ever clearer that the differences between the two albums is incredible. THOSL’s songs are the exact opposite of Hejira’s; complex structures that writhe out of of your grasp just as you think you’re getting to grips with them. Hejira is a much more subtle listen – it requires patience and a willingness to get to know it, not so that it no longer jars (as with THOSL) but so that those miniscule variations in arrangements and motifs can be recognised and enjoyed and if you ever worry that you’re going to have got them all worked out and have nothing left to unearth (you won’t!) you can always just kick back and spend an hour with one of the finest wordsmiths modern popular music has yet produced.
Nick listened: I’ve only ever listened to Blue by Joni, even though she’s an artist who seems to get name-checked by a huge amount of musicians I love (Tom began his intro on the night by saying how much Patrick Wolf loves this album). I’m aware that some of her later work is very jazz-influenced/derived, and have been curious to investigate The Hissing of Summer Lawns for a while. Hejira wasn’t really on my radar though, and on one listen wasn’t quite jazzy in the way I’d have liked – though from what Tom said I suspect Hissing… might be. It was still lovely though, and the lyrics are so dense and literary (note: I’m not putting ‘literary’ or ‘poetic’ lyrics on any higher artistic level than wordless guide vocals) that they’d take far more attention (and time) to unpack than a DRC session can facilitate. Awesome bass playing. A lovely and compelling sound.
Rob Listened: I’ve never knowingly listened to a Joni Mitchell album. I carried some ill-formed impression of what they’re like – drippy James Taylor-esque acoustic cooing – which i’m sure formed back when my musical planet was cooling from the molten heat of post-punk, pre-rave Manchester. It doesn’t help that her heyday sits squarely in my mid-70s blind spot.
Hejira was great. Fluid of motion, pure of sound. It fleetingly recalled lots of stuff I really did fall in love with and to, but remained resolutely other. I loved its flowing construction, clearly very deliberate, but seemingly unfolding casually, constantly, like a dreamy meander through the wilderness.
I’ve never knowingly listened to a James Taylor album.